The Dhammapada exploration – part 25: The Monk

Monks, huh? Good-for-nothing social parasites, locked up in their monasteries, cooking bland veggie food and making worthless mandalas all day long. Yeah, if you look at it from the outside, sure. But a nun’s or monk’s qualities are mostly internal, they automatically accumulate some wisdom and compassion, unless they’re bad at their job, in which case they should probably quit and move back to the real world.

But monks and nuns are also foolish and deluded, just like everyone else. They simply have a more professional and focused way of dealing with it. You don’t become automatically enlightened just because you wear a black or saffron robe, my friend, and Buddhist suttas are full of stories of stupid or silly monks who just didn’t get it. Usually there is one other person in those stories who did get it, and sometimes they make fun of the unwise one. Other times the idiot him or herself realizes they’re being thick.

All this goes to show that the position of nun or monk is in no way special. Some Buddhist sects abhor hierarchy because it creates artificial superiority between beings where there is none. In the same vein, Buddhism has always been both for laypeople and for monastics. Both can ultimately achieve the same, and there are examples of laypeople who have achieved enlightenment, such as Layman Pang.

But now let’s see what the Dhammapada has to say about it.

360. Good is restraint over the eye; good is restraint over the ear; good is restraint over the nose; good is restraint over the tongue.

361. Good is restraint in the body; good is restraint in speech; good is restraint in thought. Restraint everywhere is good. The monk restrained in every way is freed from all suffering.

362. He who has control over his hands, feet and tongue; who is fully controlled, delights in inward development, is absorbed in meditation, keeps to himself and is contented — him do people call a monk.

Like in previous chapters, don’t think of some cheap kung-fu movie scene where they talk about absolute restraint and control. It doesn’t mean total rigidity of the mind and body. Monks and nuns shouldn’t have assholes so tight that their eyeballs pop out. Quite the opposite.

Restraint and control are more related to seeing what your mind is up to, and to be able not to act on it when you notice it’s up to unwholesome things. If there is craving for a bottle of whisky after some disappointment at work, your job is to notice that you’ve been disappointed at work and not to let the impulse for getting drunk take over from that.

363. That monk who has control over his tongue, is moderate in speech, unassuming and who explains the Teaching in both letter and spirit — whatever he says is pleasing.

This is reflected in many pieces of Buddhist literature: it’s also the spirit, not just the letter, that counts. I’m reading Brad Warner’s paraphrasing of Dogen at the moment, and after Dogen’s death the question of succession and “what would Dogen do?” came up a few times. Later generations tried to extract the spirit of his teachings and continue in that spirit. So that’s OK.

The letters and the oral teachings in Buddhism are recognized to be imperfect vessels for what is to be taught. Just like the phrase “a yellow duckling” can’t create the idea of a yellow duckling perfectly and in all detail in someone’s brain, even if that person knows what a duckling is, so can the Buddhist suttas not explain enlightenment or the end of suffering in all detail.

The written and spoken word is merely there to draw a detailed outline of these ideas, but you have to realize the ideas yourself, it’s you who has to fill in the colors. That’s why a monk or nun, just like a good teacher, should strive to fully grasp these ideas so they can explain them in many different ways.

That might also be why people find themselves drawn to different schools of Buddhism even though the fundamentals are the same for all of them. I like Zen Buddhism, for example, but others like more mystic/esoteric schools like Vajrayana, and all these schools are equally valid.

364. The monk who abides in the Dhamma, delights in the Dhamma, meditates on the Dhamma, and bears the Dhamma well in mind — he does not fall away from the sublime Dhamma.

365. One should not despise what one has received, nor envy the gains of others. The monk who envies the gains of others does not attain to meditative absorption.

I suppose this is because envy is still some form of clinging. You grasp on to the idea of wanting-to-have and to the ideas of having-more and having-less, to comparisons. But these comparisons aren’t useful on the path, so  monk needs to drop them. In fact, these comparisons are based on delusions.

366. A monk who does not despise what he has received, even though it be little, who is pure in livelihood and unremitting in effort — him even the gods praise.

367. He who has no attachment whatsoever for the mind and body, who does not grieve for what he has not — he is truly called a monk.

That last one, “for the mind and body”, perhaps points at the fact that also ideas and opinions can be clung to. It doesn’t matter if you cling to a Maserati convertible or to the idea that Al Gore should have won the election.

Ideas as well as physical possessions will only weigh you down on the path to enlightenment. This sounds like so much clichéd  new-age bullshit, but it’s a truth you can observe for yourself if you start on the path. Don’t believe my crazy ramblings, go experience it.

368. The monk who abides in universal love and is deeply devoted to the Teaching of the Buddha attains the peace of Nibbana, the bliss of the cessation of all conditioned things.

369. Empty this boat, O monk! Emptied, it will sail lightly. Rid of lust and hatred, you shall reach Nibbana.

370. Cut off the five, abandon the five, and cultivate the five. The monk who has overcome the five bonds is called one who has crossed the flood.

So which five are to be cut off and which five to be cultivated? I steal directly from Access to Insight with this explanation:

“The five to be cut off are the five “lower fetters”: self-illusion, doubt, belief in rites and rituals, lust and ill-will. The five to be abandoned are the five “higher fetters”: craving for the divine realms with form, craving for the formless realms, conceit, restlessness, and ignorance”

371. Meditate, O monk! Do not be heedless. Let not your mind whirl on sensual pleasures. Heedless, do not swallow a red-hot iron ball, lest you cry when burning, “O this is painful!”

Awesome images once again. These old masters knew how to write a good story! Another translation has this as “Heedless, do not gulp a glob of iron!” I love this horror-style mutilation stuff.

Just like you wouldn’t drink from a crucible of molten iron, you shouldn’t drink from these sense-pleasures in excess, because they’ll burn your throat. Your mind-throat. Or something.

Now there’s a whole of praising-the-lifestyle-of-monks-and-nuns, I think these bits are more or less clear:

372. There is no meditative concentration for him who lacks insight, and no insight for him who lacks meditative concentration. He in whom are found both meditative concentration and insight, indeed, is close to Nibbana.

373. The monk who has retired to a solitary abode and calmed his mind, who comprehends the Dhamma with insight, in him there arises a delight that transcends all human delights.

374. Whenever he sees with insight the rise and fall of the aggregates, he is full of joy and happiness. To the discerning one this reflects the Deathless.

375. Control of the senses, contentment, restraint according to the code of monastic discipline — these form the basis of holy life here for the wise monk.

376. Let him associate with friends who are noble, energetic, and pure in life, let him be cordial and refined in conduct. Thus, full of joy, he will make an end of suffering.

377. Just as the jasmine creeper sheds its withered flowers, even so, O monks, should you totally shed lust and hatred!

378. The monk who is calm in body, calm in speech, calm in thought, well-composed and who has spewn out worldliness — he, truly, is called serene.

379. By oneself one must censure oneself and scrutinize oneself. The self-guarded and mindful monk will always live in happiness.

380. One is one’s own protector, one is one’s own refuge. Therefore, one should control oneself, even as a trader controls a noble steed.

Okay, for this one I’ll interrupt your reading. I like that Buddhism underlines time and time again that it’s you who is responsible for your own fortune. Be it good or bad. There is no higher power you can call to, if you fuck something up, it’s you who fucked up.

Also, horse simile.

381. Full of joy, full of faith in the Teaching of the Buddha, the monk attains the Peaceful State, the bliss of cessation of conditioned things.

382. That monk who while young devotes himself to the Teaching of the Buddha illumines this world like the moon freed from clouds.

And as a final note, you may see the Pali words for monk (bhikku) and nun (bhikkuni) in other versions of these texts. It’s not always the case that bhikkuni are explicitly mentioned, and the female reader is like so often forced to substitute the female form when reading the male.

I don’t want to make this into a weird gender SJW thing, but know that Buddhism has been quite inclusive and even radically progressive, with female sanghas springing up  around the time of the Buddha, 2500 years ago. So that’s a good thing. But quickly the man-monks got all scared by the popularity of the nuns, and they started restricting what the monastic women could and could not do.

So Buddhism wasn’t always a beautiful fresh field of flowers, butterflies and happy men and women frolicking in equality. There have been issues. In some places of the world and in some schools, there still are today. But I like to think that things are all in all better, and this certainly beats the “women were created out of men” and “a woman can be owned like an ox”, or “the pope must always be a man” stance of the big world religions.

Buddhism already started off with inclusiveness, but keeping this alive sadly seems to require constant work by many people. I’m only including this here because the Dhammapada titles this chapter “The Monk”, as if women didn’t exist.

But before this degenerates and you read things into it that I never meant (“ooo lookit, a non-gay man, what could he possibly know about gender issues lol!!!!111”), I’ll stop 🙂

This is a series of articles I’m doing on one of the basic Buddhist texts, the Dhammapada. Read the rest of the articles in this series.

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